The Trump administration has unveiled a detailed plan outlining long-term U.S. goals and involvement in the Syrian conflict. Though the Obama administration assiduously avoided any open-ended commitments in the conflict, it appears that President Trump is reversing that position. Depending on who you ask, this move either signals a desire to retake the initiative from hostile foreign powers, or it risks the escalation of an already volatile conflict. While the announcement has been met with anger by the Turkish and Iranian governments, many Arab observers have welcomed the news.
News of a possible long-term U.S. presence in Syria was greeted positively by Khaleej Times’s Abdulrahman Al Rashed, who argues that the creation of and support for a new anti-Assad military force may actually stabilize the country: “The United States is the new player here, finally deciding to get involved in the Syrian war by supporting local opposition groups in a bid to find a solution in Syria. This development is important, though the new region will not be a state in the legal sense. A Syrian region east of the Euphrates would be less than a state, but more than a protectorate. Dividing countries and building a new one is a complex and dangerous political, legal and military process, not to forget that there is an international consensus against such a project. Yet, a new Syrian force could be the best option for a reasonable peace in Syria.... The creation of a new Syrian region is a better option than what was planned by the Russians and Iranians, which was to bring about a solution by force.”
The announcement has caused a lot of consternation in Turkey, where, according to Hurriyet Daily News, the political leadership has used strong words to denounce the U.S. decision: “The U.S.’s policies on Syria are ‘against its alliance’ with Turkey and statements coming from Washington are contradictory, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has said, after the U.S.-led coalition in Syria announced that a new ‘border force’ will be set up in northern Syria.... ‘Turkey’s stance is open and clear. It is impossible for us to allow any settlement of a terror army right on our border. All necessary measures that ensure the security of our citizens and borders will be taken without any hesitation’, he added. ‘U.S. moves in Syria are unfortunately against the alliance. The U.S. should eliminate the confusion about the future of the region’, Yıldırım said.”
The Iranian government has also been quick to paint the U.S. action as reckless, destabilizing and against the interests of peace: “Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said the plan complicates the crisis and leads to instability in the country.... ‘The Islamic Republic of Iran, the Russian Federation and the Republic of Turkey are attempting to contain the flames of the crisis through the Astana peace talks and the creation of de-escalation zones’ and the three countries have made significant achievements in this regard, he added. He urged Washington to reverse its ‘destructive’ policies in the Middle East, withdraw its forces from Syria and let the Syrian people decide their own fate.”
However, some regional observers maintain that, despite the veneer of cohesion, Iran, Turkey and Russia have been at loggerheads with each other over what the end-game looks like. For example, Asharq Alawsat’s Ghassan Charbel points out that “The reality says that the Russian solution in Syria is no cakewalk. The calculations being weighed at the Astana talks that include Russia, Iran and Turkey contrast with each other.... Clearest of all is Russia’s growing difficulty in finding a middle ground between the demands of regional and international players in Syria. The lowering of the expectations over the Russian solution may pave the way for other options that may prolong the war, which ISIS’ defeat demonstrated was much more complicated than many previously expected. Reaching the final victory in Syria is difficult. As long as a political solution is missing, each military victory will remain vulnerable.”
For the National’s editorial staff, much of the skepticism about the winding down of the conflict anytime soon is due to Syrian President Bashir Al Assad’s continuing “scorched earth” campaign against his opposition: “Mr Al Assad has made a mockery of pledges in Astana to treat both Eastern Ghouta and Idlib, the last rebel stronghold, as de-escalation zones and end the violence. He has no regard for either the Syrian people or the peace process, set to be resumed in parallel talks in Sochi and Geneva this month. Neither words nor lives hold any value for Mr Al Assad; a process which began in March 2012 has achieved nothing but the displacement of more than 11 million people and the deaths of 340,000 as the worst humanitarian crisis of our time unfolds before our eyes and the world stays motionless.”
Writing for the Saudi daily Arab News, Fadi Esber notes that part of the reason Assad’s approach may soon backfire is that it invites further scrutiny from outside powers, ultimately pushing the United States towards a more overt support for the rebels, thus prolonging the conflict: “the Syrian battlefield continues to surprise external observers, who still face major difficulties in predicting even short-term outcomes. The recent twists and turns of events around the province of Idlib and the region of Afrin in northwestern Syria are yet another example of the complexity that still marks, and will continue to overshadow, the Syrian conflict.... The raging battles in Idlib have shaken the already fragile Astana agreement.... political and military entanglements over Idlib and Afrin between Russia, Turkey and the US will unfold in the coming days and weeks. Whether the interested powers are able to resolve the impasse remains an open question. If a conflagration ensues, it will be a terrible setback for the conflict resolution effort and will only increase the complexity of the Syrian war.”